28-29 December 1998
Text last updated 16 February 1999
THE ABDUCTION of 16
tourists in Abyan on December 28, 1998, was not only the largest kidnapping in Yemen's
recent history, it was the first in which hostages died.
Until then, the tribal practice of kidnapping foreigners - usually
to draw attention to their grievances against the government - had been little more than a
persistent nuisance. Hostages were normally well-treated, and always released unharmed -
even if the negotiations to free them dragged on for weeks. Some were even showered with
gifts by tribesmen upon their release.
The tourists, on a Christmas and New Year tour of Yemen
with a British company, Explore Worldwide, were travelling from Habban to Aden in a convoy
of five four-wheel-drive vehicles. About 11am, five kilometres after Lahmar, a truck
suddenly blocked the road between the first and second vehicles. Armed men appeared from
the left and right, and from between the trees, firing into the air.
One tourist and the driver of the first vehicle escaped to
raise the alarm. The occupants of the remaining vehicles - 12 Britons, two Australians,
two Americans and four Yemeni drivers - were all taken captive.
First reports suggested it was just another tribal kidnapping - and indeed, several of the
kidnappers came from the same tribe in Upper Aulaqi. But the affair rapidly assumed a more
sinister dimension when it became known on this occasion the kidnapping was organised by
the Islamic Army of Aden-Abyan, an offshoot of
Jihad, led by Abu al-Hassan al-Mihdar.
THE HOSTAGES were
driven northwards about 10km from the main road to an area of rocks and scrubland.
On the way they were seen by local tribesmen who recognised some of the kidnappers.
Traders from a village nearby sold them bottled water and bread.
Barely an hour after the kidnapping, Abu
al-Hassan was busy making calls on a satellite phone (allegedly sent from
London by his friend, Abu Hamza al-Masri). In
one of these calls - overheard by a Yemeni driver with the tour group - the kidnappers'
leader is said to have referred to the hostages as "ordered goods". According to
the driver, he said: "We've got the goods that were ordered - 1,600 cartons marked
'British' and 'American'."
It is not known if Abu al-Hassan was speaking to Abu Hamza
at the time, but Abu Hamza was certainly among the first people he called. According to an
interview with al-Wasat magazine (11.1.99), Abu al-Hassan told Abu Hamza he had been
hoping the tourists would be mainly Americans, and seemed disappointed. The British cleric
urged against harming the hostages and Abu al-Hassan agreed, saying that wanted to
exchange them for nine Islamists who were under arrest. The nine prisoners consisted of
two groups: Sheikh Salih Haidara al-Atawi and his two brothers who had been arrested at
the beginning of December, and the six men
(five Britons and an Algerian living in Britain) who had been arrested on 23/24 December.
Abu al-Hassan continued making phone calls well into the
night. According to a witness, one of the people he called was Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar,
president Salih's half-brother - a man with enormous influence in Yemen's military,
security and tribal affairs. During that call, Abu al-Hassan allegedly demanded the
release of his arrested comrades.
According to the same witness, Abu al-Hassan also tried to
call "Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Jaza'iri" and was told to await a return call at 12
Meanwhile, Abu al-Hassan sent a representative to the
authorities in Abyan to tell them that his group would release the hostages if the nine
Islamists were freed. Almost as an afterthought, he added that UN sanctions against Iraq
must also be lifted. He was told that the government was determined to free the hostages
without releasing the Islamist detainees.
That night, hostages and kidnappers ate fried meat around
a campfire, then slept in the open.
Shoot-out and rescue
EARLY on the second
day (December 29) an elderly tribal leader, Haythmi 'Ashal, visited security officials and
offered to negotiate with the kidnappers. They said they would not stand in his way.
He arrived at the hide-out with drinks and biscuits, and spent an
hour or more there. But the kidnappers refused to negotiate - apparently because they did
not want to do so at a local level. They allegedly told him: "We don't want anyone,
we can't negotiate with anyone. We have contacts at a very high level. The response will
come to us at 12 o'clock or 12.15." The baffled sheikh left.
Later that morning, government troops approached and a
battle ensued, with the kidnappers shielding themselves behind hostages as they fired at
How and why the shooting started is still a mystery.
Initial Yemeni claims that the troops opened fire only after the kidnappers
had begun to kill the hostages are not supported by the hostages' own accounts. More
recent Yemeni statements by the Interior Minister, General Hussein Arab (right), have
back-tracked slightly, suggesting that if the kidnappers had not actually started to kill
the hostages, they had at least threatened to do so - at a rate of one hostage every two
hours unless their demands were met. However, it is still not known precisely how the
It is clear from evidence given in court that the security
forces were approaching from several directions. It is also reasonably certain that the
kidnappers fired the first three shots, probably hoping to halt the army's advance.
Possibly they hoped, too, that by placing five hostages directly in the line of fire, they
would keep the army at bay.
Later, at his trial, however, Abu al-Hassan seemed to
support the government's version of events. He admitted giving orders to kill the hostages
in the event of a rescue operation. He said his instruction was "to kill only the
men, and not the women, if Yemeni police intervened to free the hostages."
But at least one of the hostages has also said it was
impossible to tell who fired first, and a number of journalists covering the story in
Yemen, as well as some military pundits, have concluded that the rescue was
"bungled". The Yemenis, on the other hand, can point to dozens of earlier
kidnappings which they have handled successfully, without any casualties among the
Although most of the survivors have been non-committal in
public, the Australian survivor, Catherine Spence, issued a written statement on January 5
defending the army's conduct: "Had different action been taken I cannot begin to
guess whether the result would have been 20 dead or 20 living hostages
made later by our drivers confirm that the terrorists were shouting to the army that they
intended to shoot us.
"They [the army] did not begin their 'assault' until
after they had been spotted by the terrorists who opened fire on them. I have no dispute
with the Yemeni army's statement that once the shooting began they believed they had no
choice but to act as quickly as possible
Blame, if blame must be assigned, can lie
only with those who took us hostage."
However it started, the result was that three Britons and
one Australian died, along with two of the kidnappers.
The political fall-out
SHORTLY after the
shoot-out, the press attache at the Yemeni embassy in London phoned news organisations to
tell them the hostages had been rescued. Some of the kidnappers had been killed and the
remainder arrested, but unfortunately, three of the hostages had also died [a fourth died
later from injuries].
Presented in this way, it
suggested that the Yemenis - far from regarding the military operation as a disaster -
considered it reasonably successful in the circumstances. Given that violent death in
Yemen is by no means uncommon, that view might even have been accepted if the victims had
been Yemenis and not foreigners.
The shock in Britain was undoubtedly made worse by the
earlier observations in the press and on television that kidnappers in Yemen tended to be
amiable rogues who meant no harm to their hostages. But the British government was also
annoyed at the apparently off-hand way it had been treated. It appeared that the British
ambassador in Sana'a had not been kept properly informed and that the Yemeni authorities
had gone back on previous assurances that they would seek a peaceful solution.
One of the fundamental problems on the diplomatic front is
the cultural gap between the governments of western countries (such as Britain) and Yemen.
In the west, official information is precisely recorded, analysed and then released in a
fairly disciplined manner. In Yemen, rumour and rhetoric tend to get in the way of facts.
As journalists and others who visit the country rapidly discover, reliable facts are hard
to find. Everyone claims to "know", but what they know can be entirely different
from what the next person knows.
When the ambassador, Victor Henderson, met the Interior
Minister in the hope of finding out precisely what had happened, the meeting proved curt,
short and uninformative. The Yemeni ambassador to London, Dr Hussein al-Amri, was then
summoned to the Foreign Office twice in the space of two days for what, in undiplomatic
language, amounted to a stern talking-to.
This took British-Yemeni relations into a sensitive area,
impinging on Yemen's sovereignty and right to control its own affairs, against Britain's
entitlement to protection for its citizens. The outcome was that Yemen agreed to let
British and American investigators into the country, but relations took another turn for
the worse on January 2 when the Yemenis claimed they had been aware of a threat to British
interests in Yemen. More complaints from London followed, because they had failed to
inform the British authorities of any threat. At first the Yemeni claim was met with
scepticism, because it seemed like an unsubtle attempt to deflect criticism over the
army's handling of the hostage rescue.
But worse was to come. On January 6, the Interior Minister
claimed that a number of Britons were under arrest as suspected terrorists. Once again
there was scepticism, and the Yemenis themselves seemed in some doubt as to whether the
British passports carried by the suspects were genuine. Those doubts soon vanished when
the British relatives of the suspects protested at their arrest.
The first casualty of the diplomatic row was Yemen's
application to join the British Commonwealth, which was originally submitted in 1997. On
January 3, the junior Foreign Office minister, Tony Lloyd, said it would be rejected
because Yemen "does not meet the entry criteria on good governance". The
following day, Yemen said it would withdraw the application - adding that it had been
encouraged to apply by the previous Conservative government.
Yemeni-British relations deteriorated further on January 5
when arguments broke out over the role of British investigators - particularly sensitive
issue because Britain is the former colonial power in southern Yemen.
Abd al-Majid Zindani, one of the most outspoken figures in
the opposition Islah party told al-Hayat newspaper: "We refuse any interference by
foreigners in our legal system, whether they are from Britain, the United States or
anywhere else ... It is an attack on our sovereignty." He continued: "If we open
this door to foreigners they will push it wider open and could send us observers to
monitor our administration and finances."
Later, Agence France Presse quoted the Interior Minister,
General Hussein Arab, as saying that the British and American investigators were "not
participating" either directly or indirectly in the inquiry into the deaths of the
hostages. "The people from the FBI and Scotland Yard are only here to get the results
of the inquiry by the Yemeni security services and to shed light on the crime."
On January 6, The Times reported that local security
officials in Aden had told two of the four detectives from Scotland Yard's anti-terrorist
branch to leave the city on the next available flight. However, it appeared that they had
not been asked to leave the country.
At this stage, British and Yemeni authorities seem to have
realised that the row was getting out of hand. The dispute involving the detectives was
rapidly smoothed-over as a "bureaucratic hitch" and Britain insisted that it had
not changed its views on Yemen's Commonwealth application. Publicly at least, everyone was